Opinion: Free Comedy – Too Good to Be True?

angel comedy

I had an email from Islington's Angel Comedy Club earlier this week announcing their Comedy Extravaganza starting on September 30th. This is a week of gigs launching their new season. Sorry, I should have added, a week of FREE gigs. Among the acts appearing are Simon Munnery, Daniel Simonsen, Sara Pascoe, Arthur Smith, Aisling Bea, Jarred Christmas, Luke Toulson and Shappi Khorsandi*. On October 6 Luisa Omielan will be dusting off her What Would Beyonce Do? stormer. Pretty good value I'd say. Particularly as, did I mention this, the gigs are free (although you may have to body swerve a collection bucket on the way out - see below).

There has been heated discussion recently about free gigs killing the comedy circuit in London (although I didn't notice anyone complaining about free gigs killing the Fringe in Edinburgh in August…). Not surprisingly the disgruntled people tend to be the people who put on gigs where you have to pay to get in. It's a tough business, comedy, where the rewards can be massive at the top, but then fall off sharply beyond the world of lucrative corporate gigs and voiceovers as well as big tours and TV.

It can be a struggle down in the live comedy trenches, where rates have dropped dramatically in recent years for non-Live at the Apollo acts. But I don't think it is free comedy that is forcing pay days down. It is partly down to the fact that new comedy fans attracted to live comedy only want to see TV acts and other line-ups are suffering. But even if pay cuts were caused by free comedy, that is market forces, there is nothing underhand about it. I know there has been talk of a comedians' union but it has been mooted before. It didn't work then and it is unlikely to work now. 

So what would a sensible punter choose, assuming the quality of the performers on the night are comparable - a free gig or a gig you have to pay to get into? The answer has to be a free gig if the quality is up to scratch and not just new acts using the opportunity to get experience and stage time. Angel Comedy bills itself as "London's Only Free Professional Stand-Up Comedy Night". I'm not sure whether this means professionally run or professional acts, but I've heard good things about it. And it is certainly ambitious. After the impressive line-up of the opening week the club will run every night.

What then, is the set up of the Angel Comedy Club? I asked the people involved, comedians Sarah Pearce, Barry Ferns and Katerina Vrana. Here are my questions and their answers: 

1) A simple, obvious question - how do you make any money?

We don't make money…We're a group of comedians...not promoters. We run Angel because we love performing to big, friendly audiences.

We do pay acts though (see below). We're able to do this from our bucket collection at the end (like the Free Fringe in Edinburgh).

2) Do the acts get paid?

On Friday and Saturday nights, the acts get paid for their ten minute sets and we've always paid acts for longer sets.

Other than that though – no they don’t.

We operate on the same premise that the Free Festival and Free Fringe operate on in Edinburgh - free entry with voluntary donations at the end.

At the end of each night we stand at the door with a bucket and if the audience enjoys the show and would like to support our club, then on their way out they put whatever money they can/want into it.
This money goes to the running/maintaining of the club (equipment, advertising costs, publicising materials etc). On Fridays and Saturdays it goes to the acts. On other days it goes towards the general club maintenance. On Tuesdays it gets split between the club and the act performing an hour.

3) I presume the pub gets the beer money and you get the chance to try out new material?

Fridays and Saturdays are not new material nights...we choose acts because we know they have fantastic 10 minute sets. On Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, some acts have the chance to do new material

On the comedy circuit right now there are no paid 10 minute slots like there used to be 10 years ago – in fact there are very few ways for acts that are good or new to perform at anything but the smallest, poorly attended, poorly run, open mic nights. We decided to change that (for ourselves and others).

Also, there’s very little progression on the comedy circuit for new acts. There is presently a bottleneck between acts that get paid and acts that don’t get paid, and really there is very little difference in the quality of some of those acts. That is how and why we put on such good night for free.

4) What do clubs that charge entry think of this?

We're one club that can let 100 max people in on a Saturday (or any day) – there are 10 million people living in London.  I’m sure any sane promoter isn’t the least bit threatened by our business model of putting on great shows for free (lets face it, very few people are going to adopt that model!)

Apart from our one-off special weeks (like this October's Launch Week Extravaganza), we rarely put 'names' on, like all of the other paid comedy clubs do. So we don’t even have the same people on the bill! Just talented people like ourselves who have amazing ten minute sets...but who aren't being booked by the clubs that charge entry. There's a LOT of talent out there, and not enough clubs who showcase some of the rising stars. That's where we come in.

Clubs that are run well get word of mouth and an audience, whether they're free entry or ticketed. There are lots of free clubs that don't attract an audience. And lots of fab ticketed clubs that don't see us as competition at all.

*For those reading this on Facebook and wondering why there is a picture of Holly Walsh she was in the original line-up, hence the picture, but had to pull out.

See here to follow the discussion about this story on Facebook.

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